House approves bill that could expand enrollment footprint for state-authorized charter schools

A bill that could expand enrollment for state-authorized charter schools in Memphis was approved Thursday by the Tennessee House, despite concerns from some lawmakers about financial management and student performance within the state’s Achievement School District (ASD).

The proposal would permit select out-of-zone students — those who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch, who have failed statewide achievement tests, or whose parents or relatives work at an ASD school — to comprise up to 25 percent of students in any school operated through the ASD, most of which have been transitioned to charter school operators. Currently, only students who are zoned to a school in the ASD or another school in the bottom 5 percent are qualified to attend a school in the turnaround district.

The measure also would allow the ASD to charge its charter operators an authorizer fee of up to 3 percent of each school’s per-pupil funding from the state.

The bill will be heard next by the full Senate, likely next week.

Backed by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, the measure was approved 59-31 in the House after having squeaked out of a House education committee. There, some members had expressed concern that the ASD would use the revised enrollment policy to recruit high-performing students and artificially boost its numbers at the expense of traditional schools operated by Shelby County Schools.

Thursday’s House debate, however, focused less on ASD school enrollment and funding than on the legitimacy of the ASD, which the state created in 2011 to turn around Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent of schools. Some legislators said they were skeptical about the efficacy of the ASD, which was one of the state’s hallmark reforms of the past five years in an effort to raise student achievement.

Many ASD schools remain in the bottom state’s 5 percent, but Superintendent Chris Barbic has said that turning around struggling schools takes time. Some representatives pointed out that many low-performing schools within Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone are showing faster academic gains than schools within the ASD. Democrats also cited a state comptroller report from last November that called out the ASD for misappropriating federal funds and for not documenting all expenditures. The district has since addressed the report’s concerns.

“Shouldn’t the ASD really be limited in its operations until it gets its own house in order?” asked Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville).

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville), who introduced the bill in the House, said concerns about the comptroller’s report were overblown, as were doubts about the performance of ASD schools. The comptroller’s report was routine, he said. And though the ASD’s academic track record isn’t sterling, many of its schools have made impressive gains, he added.

Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) spoke emotionally in support of the ASD, saying he wishes it “existed 40 years ago.”

The ASD has come under fire from some legislators. Twenty-two bills were filed that either would limit the district’s authority or abolish the ASD altogether. Of those, only two bills have survived, after having been tempered in consultation with leaders of the ASD and the state Department of Education.

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